“Often passed over in favour of the Panorama Route towns of Sabie, Graskop or Pilgrim’s Rest, Barberton is well worth a visit for its scenery, geology and rich gold mining history.”
f I started talking about South Africa’s gold rush era of the 1880s, chances are you’d picture the historical town of Pilgrim’s Rest in Mpumalanga, with its preserved old buildings and ancient graveyard.
You wouldn’t be wrong, but you would be overlooking a town even more prominent in this period of South Africa’s history. A place where gold is still mined today, and where the gold veins are so rich that the joke goes that miners had to remove the rock from the gold! A place where gold rush towns boomed and crumbled, gold fever still catches the unsuspecting, and a town where the ghosts are as real as its flesh-and-blood inhabitants. I’m talking about Barberton, in Mpumalanga.
Often passed over in favour of the Panorama Route towns of Sabie, Graskop or Pilgrim’s Rest, Barberton is well worth a visit for its scenery, geology and rich gold mining history. Of course, a visit to the town will include a trip to Eureka City and Golden Quarry.
From gold rush glitter and ghostly glee…
The peak of the gold rush hit Barberton in the 1880s. Prospectors rushed to this small town, all with dreams of striking it big. Claims were pegged out along the hills and rivers surrounding the small town with miners hard at work digging or panning for gold.
The town saw such an influx of prospectors that there was not room for all. Moreover, these miners were a rough and brawling sort, not suitable for the society of town. Eureka City, with a peak population of 700 people was built on the hills outside of town in 1885 and was the site of many Wild-West styled antics including horse races down the main street. Today it is long since abandoned and the crumbling ruins are all that remain.
Guided visitors can walk through the packed stone doorways and imagine themselves present during the times of Cockney Liz or the Golden Dane.
Of course, some fortunes were made but many were lost. The story of Golden Quarry started out as a sad tale of a prospector who had spent all he had saved in a futile pursuit of gold. In 1885, dejected and penniless, Edwin Bray went walking the hills outside Barberton, brooding on his situation. Out of frustration, he apparently hit the ground with his mallet. Imagine his surprise when, looking down, he found he had uncovered a rich vein of gold running right to the surface!
No doubt the claim was registered with haste, and digging on Golden Quarry began. So named because it looked as though the rock was formed entirely of gold, this site is the richest and oldest working mine in the world. Although other sections are still being mined, the original quarry (a deep pit) mine is open to guided visitors.
Descending into the darkened depths and with an overwhelming sense of space that extends far beyond your tiny pool of torchlight, it is incredible to think that this was all dug by hand. Miners would climb in and out by rope, carrying all of their equipment, and any earth dug out would be removed the same way. In the centre of the mine, a beam of light falls from the entrance high above illuminating the cool dampness and eerie stillness contained within the hand-hewn walls, a quiet monument to man’s determination and perseverance.
Back on the surface, it was time for some ghost stories from local tour guides Pieter and Wynand. Both big, strong men, they are not the types that seem susceptible to spooky stories or scaring easily and yet, the stories they shared of first-hand experiences left me with goosebumps even on a hot day!
There were the usual tales of odd noises in old houses, but old houses sometimes make weird noises all on their own, right? The stories of locked doors repeatedly being found open late at night were harder to explain, and a warning not to drive the pass outside of town in the dark because of unusual car troubles had me convinced.
…to geology and mountain views on the Geotrail
A much safer activity than late-night ghost hunting is exploring the Makhonjwa Geotrail. This 38km route through the Makhonjwa mountains takes motorists to a number of points of geological interest. That might be putting it too mildly. The truth is that some of the best-preserved and most unusual geological finds in the world are right on Barberton’s doorstep, and geologists travel from all corners of the world to see them.
The trail is well-marked and informative. Even as a layperson, the significance of the cuttings was obvious. Among the sites are the remains of an old coastline 1400m above today’s current sea level, as well as evidence of a meteor impact.
The crowning glory, however, is getting a close look at one of the oldest rocks in the world. Barberton’s Makhonjwa Geotrail is only one of three exclusive places where this rock can be viewed. Since one of the other destinations is deep under the ice in Greenland and the last is hundreds of kilometres in the middle of nowhere in Australia, taking an easy drive along the Geotrail is an obvious choice!
Barberton is a gem of a town with so much to offer the visitor, that it is a pity that it remains somewhat off the main tourist route. But that’s good news for the visitor who wants an uncluttered, authentic experience of one of the most fascinating corners of South Africa.
For those planning a route near Nelspruit, make a stop in Barberton and see for yourself.